For my entire climbing career, I wanted to climb Castleton. That was my tower, it was my goal. Castleton Tower is a majestic 400-foot spire of magnificent Wingate Sandstone that sits proudly on a 1,000-foot cone of loose, rotten, decaying boulders. When I first came to Moab in 2011, my first time climbing outside, I wanted Castleton more than anything else. But having had no experience, I was told to wait to gain some skill in cracks and offwidths and instead we went to do Ancient Art instead, which was my first outdoor climb, and involved us rappelling the route in a rainstorm.
But for as long as I can remember, that tower, first ascended by Layton Kor and Huntley Ingalls over the span of two days in 1961, just called. Then a few weeks ago, my friend and climbing partner Colin suggested that we spend a weekend in Moab, and go climb the north chimney before he headed out on a roadtrip to California.
There was no way I was going to turn that down.
When you drive into Moab from Colorado, you enter an arid, dusty desert landscape, surrounded by mesas and buttes to the north while the snowcapped La Sal Mountains, so named because Spanish missionaries believed that they were covered in salt throughout the summer, to the south. The city of Moab is a crossroads of travellers, bikers, climbers, hikers who head for Arches and Canyonlands, and some of the weirdest but most memorable people you’ll ever meet. When I first came in 2011, a birthday gift that was partly supported by my parents, I lodged in the Lazy Lizard, a funky hostel on the west end of town, that vagabonds and dirtbags call home. For me, it’s like my own personal icon. In 2014, I came back after hiking the Needles of Canyonlands, and it felt just like home. This is where I first heard the term outdoor blogger or dirtbag, or even imagined that there was a whole community of people living in their cars.
Moab felt right.
So here we are. Back in Moab. I met Colin at Milts, which is practically a tradition. Milts, which first opened in 1954, serves burgers, sandwiches, and shakes, is practically a Utah landmark. After burgers, shakes, and onion rings, we noticed that it was starting to rain but in the morning, we would at least hike up and see the condition of the sandstone, and we’d turn around if it was too wet. As we drove alongside the Colorado River, the rain came down harder, and we took our Subarus down the canyon road. Then we rounded the bend, and in the night sky, through the rain, and the haze, Castleton Tower stood out like a black bastion against the landscape.
There was definitely a little intimidation.
As soon as we parked our cars, the rain stopped and the skies started to clear. All week leading up to the trip, we’d heard of nothing but rainstorms all weekend, but we were determined to at least check it out.
After a long night’s sleep, and my first sleeping in the back of my less than a month old car, we started hiking at 6 AM. The trail delves into old canyons and dried streambeds before switchbacking up and down loose talus. Somewhere under the tower, we briefly lost the trail and decided to dicely scramble up the ledges. Both of us found different approaches that we were comfortable with and gingerly worked our way up a rough cliffside. It wasn’t the way to go, but somehow we made it to the base.
The route starts off the edge of a ridge between Castleton and The Rectory. The North Chimney follows a long and narrow trench just to the right of the Kor-Ingalls, with cracks, offwidths, chimney climbing, and face moves in four pitches. Although I enjoy leading, I’m not as fast as Colin, so for the sake of time, with the approaching weather and clouds which were gathering behind us, we decided to make things as simple as possible.
The first pitch follows a series of double cracks, kicking off with an awkward flake and moving up towards a narrow ledge. We both took off by ‘riding the flake’ and then moving into a succession of hand jams and laybacks, leading up to a narrow and tightly compacted ledge. The first pitch, which doesn’t have bolted rappel rings, involves a semi-hanging belay, and my first, with the most comfortable position leaning back into space. Like Mountain Project describes, it’s an intimidating looking pitch but there are many good rests.
The next pitch enters the real meat of the route: The chimney. The north chimney is recognizable by the precarious looking chockstone that is suspended in midair between the walls. The second pitch includes surmounting a short bulge, climbing a ‘staircase’ of blocks with thin hand or fist jams, or carefully inching up with backs pressed against the wall. It was here that we hit one one of the most intimidating moves of the day, an up-and-over move that avoided a rusty, loose pin. We only had a #4 which hung dead in the air, and no #5, so Colin improvised a sport-climb like face move that reached back into the chimney, and precariously placed the #4 in a crevice that was half security and half placebo placement. It was just enough to make us feel good.
The third pitch starts with the same blocky chimney moves, featuring a mixture of fist jams, cracks, nuanced footwork, and finally, one of the more exciting moves of the climb, a long stretch across the tower to reach the other side. From here, it’s a short hop and then an airy traverse to the belay anchors, followed by a 5-foot ledge to the summit.
The summit is wide enough to lay out on, and we could look far across the Castle Valley. The red rock desert spread for miles, and even though the storm was fast approaching, we were both stoked to knock off such a classic route. After a bit of route finding, and getting caught in a brief rain and windstorm, we set up the three raps on the Kor-Ingalls and made our way down to the base.
The North Chimney is a long, fun, challenging, and elegant line which brings out the best in desert climbing. From the long chimney, to the cracks, the offwidths, and the airy moves up top, it’s probably one of the best moderates in the Moab area. Thanks to my awesome partner, Colin, for the great climb, and hoping to knock off more of these desert towers soon.